KABUL (Reuters) – Fifteen Afghan civilians and 10 commandos sent to reinforce Shi’ite militia forces fighting Taliban in the central province of Ghazni were killed on Sunday, officials said, as a days-long battle with threatening ethnic overtones continued.
The fighting in Jaghori district, an area inhabited mainly by Shi’ite ethnic Hazaras, has been going on since Wednesday, when Taliban fighters attacked the district and the government sent special forces units to back up local militia forces.
Police spokesman Ahmad Khan Sirat said six members of the security forces were wounded in addition to the 25 civilians and commandos who were killed.
The fighting took place as U.S. special envoy Zakmay Khalilzad prepared for a fresh round of meetings aimed at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table to try to find a political settlement to the decades-long war in Afghanistan.
Although Afghanistan has traditionally not suffered from the sectarian violence that has scarred Iraq or Syria, suicide attacks on Shi’ite targets in recent years have caused deepening anger among Hazaras, a mainly Shi’ite minority.
The Taliban, a movement dominated by Sunni Muslim ethnic Pashtuns, does not have any openly sectarian agenda and deny targeting Shi’ites but many Hazaras have blamed Pashtuns for the attacks on mosques and cultural centres.
Angered by what many see as official indifference, Hazaras have formed militia groups of their own, fuelling concern among some officials and Western diplomats at the potential for an upsurge in ethnic, sectarian violence.
Disputes over the balance of representation between Hazaras and Pashtuns, the two largest groups in Ghazni, led to the postponement of last month’s parliamentary election in the province.
On the other side of the country, in the northern province of Baghlan, at least 14 members of the Afghan security forces and civilians were killed and eight others were injured in Taliban attacks, provincial governor Abdulhai Nemati said.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid in statements said killed 36 Afghan security forces and captured one military base five security checkpoints in Ghazni and Baghlan provinces.
(Reporting by Mustafa Andalib in Ghazni and Zaker Noori in Baghlan; Editing by Toby Chopra)